Lebanon prisoner swap celebrations hail Hezbollah victory

Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah Wednesday emerged the main beneficiary from a swap of prisoners between Hezbollah and Israel, a few hours before organized rallies began celebrating the event.

Banners erected by Hezbollah on roads leading to the border crossing of Naqoura with Israel celebrated Hezbollah's triumph, reported dpa.

The swap was scheduled to start between there 0600 GMT and 0800 GMT, media reports said.

"Congratulations to our freed prisoners," read a banner in the southern port city of Sidon.

"Our victorious resistance (Hezbollah) managed to free all Lebanese prisoners from the enemy's prisons," another said.

Hezbollah followers wearing yellow hats and carrying the movement's yellow flags were seen heading towards the Naquora border crossing since the early hours of the morning. The prisoners were to be greeted in a symbolic ceremony upon crossing into Lebanon.

Hezbollah named the swap "Radwan Operation," after its slain military leader Imad Mughaniyeh, also known by the code-name of Hajj Radwan. Mughaniyeh, who was killed by a bomb in Damascus earlier this year, is believed to have masterminded the capture of the two Israeli soldiers being exchanged for the Hezbollah prisoners.

In the swap, mediated by a UN-appointed German diplomat, Israel was to free five Lebanese prisoners and return the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Arab fighters.

Hezbullah was to turn over Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two soldiers captured in July 12, 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a devastating 33-day war with Israel.

The two soldiers are believed to have died in captivity from wounds they suffered during the raid.

Hezbollah officials refused to reveal any news on their condition since they were captured.

"Hezbollah might surprise the world, and announce that one of the soldiers is still alive, but so far we do not know anything, it is all speculation," a Lebanese security source at the scene said.

A large convoy of Red Cross cars was seen leaving Beirut towards the Naqoura crossing to oversee the swap operation.

"Our job is to secure the swap deal which was reached between Hezbollah and Israel," said Christian Cardon, communication coordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"All the logistics have been set and our delegates on both sides of the border are ready," he added.

Hezbollah promotes the swap as additional victory against Israel in the war that started with the cross-border raid and was ended by UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

In return for the two Israeli soldiers, or their bodies, Israel was to release Lebanese prisoners Samir Kuntar, Khodor Zaidan, Maher Kourani, Mohammed Srour and Hussein Suleiman in addition to the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Arab fighters who were buried in Israel.

The freed prisoners were expected flown by a presidential helicopter to Beirut Airport later for an official welcome, headed by President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and House Speaker Nabih Berri.

Hezbollah is also is sponsoring a popular rally in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a traditional hotbed for the group to celebrate the swap. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was expected to deliver a speech.

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